MUSIC / Making modern music feel at home: Scarpia: Stephen Johnson on noisy children and neat programming

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
SO YOU'VE decided to make the leap of faith and put something by a living composer into one of your programmes: how do you make sure of an audience? Two vastly different approaches were represented by Stephen Hough's Wigmore Hall piano recital last Saturday, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra's Festival Hall concert the previous Wednesday.

Hough's plan of campaign looked at first like introduction by stealth. There, nestling amid a broadly attractive mixture of Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt and Grieg, was John Corigliano's Etude-fantasy of 1976. It turned out to be beautifully suited to its context: like the Chopin and the Liszt imaginatively pianistic, like the Grieg uncomplicatedly enjoyable. The challenging, 'difficult' work in the programme was in fact the Beethoven Op 111 Sonata - what was it Stravinsky said about some late Beethoven works being 'contemporary for ever'? But there was Grieg with his quiet challenge to the idea that, to be durable, music had to be difficult. Was that Hough's reasoning, or did it just turn out like that? Either way, it worked.

Maximum contrast, then, with the RPO's Beethoven / Maxwell Davies offering. As a mix, it was fine: there is something Beethovenian about the gritty determination of Worldes Blis to stick to its own terms - if you can't last the opening 20-minute Lentissimo, tough] The trouble was that someone chose this for what must have been one of the most misplaced 'bums on seats' exercises of modern times. When Worldes Blis was premiered at the Proms in 1969, audience disturbance was ruinous. Reviewing the concert, Stanley Sadie suggested that some works should be labelled 'for adult listeners only'. If only the RPO had listened. Perhaps the idea behind inviting children from 74 London schools was a scholarly desire to re-create the conditions of the first performance. Whatever the thinking, the long, slow crescendo of the first section was rhythmically counterpointed by a continuous hocketing motet of coughing. Later, talking and fidgeting behind the orchestra became so feverish I wondered whether some of them were going to don Walkmans and leap into the aisles.

Getting children who are unused to modern classical music to take part in projects like Maxwell Davies's The Turn of the Tide may well have its value, but this . . ? It says a great deal for Worldes Blis that it made an impact in spite of the competition. But attempts to describe the piece will have to wait until I've heard the RPO's recording - the news that one is on its way offered a last-minute crumb of comfort.

Britten's Peter Grimes is hardly new, or difficult - at least not in musical language. But it's surprising how easily its disturbing message can be blunted. The idea that radio drama works 'because the scenery is perfect' has become a cliche, but I was reminded of it as I sat in the Barbican Hall on Sunday, listening to a glorious concert performance of Grimes with a near-ideal cast, directed by Mstislav Rostropovich. To hear this work emerge with such passion and directness was more than thrilling, it was liberating. Of course, this is opera; of course, it cries out for realisation on the stage; but in the absence of sensitive, unself-seeking and above all musical direction, the theatre of the mind has to be preferable. And if ever there was an opera in which the music sets the scene, it is Peter Grimes - or at least, it does when it is allowed to, and is not stifled with with clever overlay. If there were any directors in that Barbican audience, perhaps they might give that some thought.